Good morning, Friends!
Last week we wound up not being able to hold worship here last Sunday, because of the winter storm. If you went onto Facebook, and looked at the Springfield page, you had a chance to watch the message I prepared for last week.
Last week was also a national holiday, in memory of Martin Luther King.
Anyway, last week we read the famous story of Moses and the burning bush, how God called Moses to go to Pharaoh, the ruler of Egypt, the most powerful ruler of the ancient world.
God told Moses to go to Pharaoh and say, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Let my people go!”
Those words have been an inspiration to countless numbers of people ever since. They’re the inspiration to movements for freedom for centuries, as people applied those words to themselves.
You probably know the rest of the story. Pharaoh refused to listen. He hardened his heart against the suffering of the people he enslaved.
God sent Moses again and again with signs to show Pharaoh that God wasn’t kidding around. Pharaoh had the chance to be merciful. But over and over again, Pharaoh hardened his heart.
Ten times God sent Moses back to Pharaoh. Each time God gave Moses a fresh sign that Pharaoh ignored.
Every river and stream in the whole country turned to blood. There were plagues of insects. Swarms of frogs that died and stank.
Pharaoh raged, “You’re just lazy, lazy! You don’t want to work! I’m going to make it harder for you than it was before. You’re going to have to do twice the work, every day, from here on!”
God sent more signs – skin diseases that affected the whole country. Hail that destroyed the crops. Locusts. Darkness that covered the whole country for three days.
But every time, Pharaoh hardened his heart. He wouldn’t pay attention to the suffering of the enslaved people. He wouldn’t even pay attention to the suffering of his own people. The land itself was suffering.
Finally Pharaoh said, “Get away from me! Take care that you don’t ever see my face again, for on the day you see my face you shall die.”
Moses said, “Just as you say! I will never see your face again.”
That was last week. If you kept on reading, you know God told the people of Israel to get ready for a journey. They prepared a hasty supper, and cooked it quickly over the coals. All they took, they had to carry on their backs.
They took blood from the animals, and painted the doorposts of their houses with it. Later that night, the angel of death came, but it spared them. All through the whole country, the first-born of every Egyptian family, the first-born of their livestock, everything, died in the night. Even in Pharaoh’s own family, the first-born died.
Everyone in the country gave gold and silver to the people of Israel, to make them go away, to bribe them to take the sickness away from their country.
That brings us up to today’s reading, in Exodus chapter 14.
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Tell the Israelites to turn back and between the mountain and the sea. Pharaoh will think, ‘The Israelites are wandering around the land in confusion, hemmed in by the desert.’ And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue them. But I will gain glory for myself through Pharaoh and all his army, and the Egyptians will know that I am the Lord.” So the Israelites did this.
When the king of Egypt was told that the people had fled, Pharaoh and his officials changed their minds about them and said, “What have we done? We have let the Israelites go and have lost their services!”
So Pharaoh had his chariot made ready and took his army with him. He took six hundred of the best chariots, along with all the other chariots of Egypt, with officers over all of them. The Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt, so that he pursued the Israelites, who were marching out boldly.
The Egyptians – all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots, cavalry and troops – pursued the Israelites and overtook them as they camped by the sea.
As Pharaoh approached, the Israelites looked up, and there were the Egyptians, marching after them. They were terrified and cried out to the Lord.
They said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? Didn’t we say to you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians’? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!”
Moses answered the people, “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.”
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Why are you crying out to me? Tell the Israelites to move on. Raise your staff and stretch out your hand over the sea to divide the water so that the Israelites can go through the sea on dry ground. I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians so that they will go in after them. And I will gain glory through Pharaoh and all his army, through his chariots and his horsemen. The Egyptians will know that I am the Lord when I gain glory through Pharaoh, his chariots and his cavalry.”
Then the angel of God, who had been traveling in front of Israel’s army, withdrew and went behind them. The pillar of cloud also moved from in front and stood behind them, coming between the army of Egypt and Israel. Throughout the night the cloud brought darkness to the one side and light to the other side; so neither went near the other all night long.
Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and all that night the Lord drove the sea back with a strong east wind and turned it into dry land. The waters were divided, and the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground, with a wall of water on their right and on their left.
The Egyptians pursued them, and all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots and cavalry followed them into the sea.
During the last watch of the night the Lord looked down from the pillar of fire and cloud at the Egyptian army and threw the army into confusion. He jammed the wheels of their chariots so that they had difficulty driving. And the Egyptians said, “Let’s get away from the Israelites! The Lord is fighting for them against Egypt.”
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea so that the waters may flow back over the Egyptians and their chariots and cavalry.”
Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at daybreak the sea went back to its place. The Egyptians were fleeing toward it, and the Lord swept them into the sea. The water flowed back and covered the chariots and cavalry – the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed the Israelites into the sea. Not one of them survived.
But the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground, with a wall of water on their right and on their left. That day the Lord saved Israel from the hands of the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egyptians lying dead on the shore.Exodus 14:1-30
This is one of the greatest, and also one of the most terrifying stories in the entire Bible.
God remembered the promise God had made long ago, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and their families. God listened to people crying out in the present day. And God promised that they would be free, and have a home again. Past. Present. And future. God was there, in all three.
God told them, “This is the first month in the new year for you. This is your new beginning! You’re going to remember this, always, and tell your children about it, and pass the story down to every generation. You’re never going to forget this.”
God said, “If I send them home by the direct route, they’ll lose heart. There are enemies along the way. They’re not ready to face them. They’re not ready to be free yet.” So God led them home through the wilderness.
They had fresh food every day. Bread from heaven, because they were in the desert and had nothing. God opened up springs of fresh water when they needed them.
And they were guided, too. Do you remember that part? Day and night, they were guided. A pillar of cloud by day, and a pillar of fire by night. They weren’t lost. They were learning to follow God.
But first, they had to cross the Red Sea. God opened up a way, where there was no way. The angel of God was their rear guard, to hold back Pharaoh’s army. And God opened up a way through the very midst of the sea, so that they could walk through to the other side.
Can you imagine how scary that must have been? A howling wind, in the middle of the night. And the water pushing back and opening up – a wall of water on each side, a road through the impassable ocean.
Imagine having the daring to step out and take that impossible road, with death and slavery behind them, and fear and freedom ahead of them?
They didn’t even know what freedom was any more. They’d been slaves for so long, they didn’t have a clue how to live as free people. It took 40 years for them just to start to figure it out. They weren’t lost. They were learning.
Every day was a hard-earned lesson. Not everybody made it. Some people wanted to go back – back to slavery, because at least it was familiar to them. Other people rebelled against Moses, and even rebelled against God.
At one point, when Moses was up on the mountain, meeting God face to face, they got afraid again. They thought Moses wasn’t coming back. They thought God had abandoned them.
They took all the treasure they had – these poor, terrified people – they took their gold and melted it down, and made a new god for themselves. They took a fake god they’d heard about before, and made a statue of it.
The fake god couldn’t help them. But they figured it was better to have a god they’d made up for themselves, rather than no god at all.
God forgave them. God gave them yet another chance. God said, “It’s really simple. If you can count to ten, you can remember these.
1) There’s only one God. I’m the one who saved you from slavery. You don’t need any other.
2) Don’t make up fake gods. Don’t worship them. Don’t bow to them. You’ll make me jealous, and that’s not a good idea.
3) Don’t misuse my name. My name is holy. Don’t use it for spells or swearing. Don’t use it to lie or do anything wrong.
4) Take a complete day of rest, every week. This is a biggie! Remember that I made the world and everything in it, and then on the seventh day, I, the Lord, rested. You do the same. And not just you, but everyone in your family, all your animals, all your servants. Everyone gets a day off once a week, without fail, to rest and remember.
5) Honor your parents. You’ll be old yourself some day.
6) Don’t murder. Don’t try to get fancy about this one. Don’t kill.
7) Don’t break the promise you made to stay faithful to the one you married.
8) Don’t steal. It’s not yours. Hands off!
9) Don’t accuse anyone falsely.
10) Don’t set your heart on anything that’s not yours – your neighbor’s house, your neighbor’s spouse, your neighbor’s servants or livestock or anything else that doesn’t belong to you.”
“These are the rules for living,” God said. “This is how free people live. Teach these things to your children. Talk about them at supper, when you get up in the morning, when you go out and when you come home.”
“If you break these rules,” God said, “you won’t be free any more. You’ll be slaves again – not to Pharaoh. You’ll be slaves to fake gods. You’ll be slaves to never-ending work. You’ll be slaves to anger, and lust, and greed and lying. Instead of Pharaoh, you’ll be your own worst enemy.”
“If you don’t live free,” God said, “I’m telling you now, you’re going to die. These things will kill you, and you’ll be slaves again. Remember what you learned, during those long, hard years in the desert. Remember how terrible slavery was, and don’t go back there.”
“Remember how scared you were, that night you waited by the ocean, with an army chasing after you, and only an angel to guard you. Remember how the ocean parted in front of you. Remember how God made a way, where there was no way.”
“Remember all these things that you’ve been through. Don’t forget the lessons you learned. You want to be free. You need to remember all these things.”
We are still trying to learn those lessons today. We forget God, and we need to learn all over again. Freedom – for ourselves, for our kids, for our neighbors, for everyone else – freedom is one of the hardest things to learn.
We always keep wanting to fall back. We know it’s wrong. But we keep taking the easy way out. We wind up being slaves again.
Not to Pharaoh. But to the rulers and forces that try to run the world. Idolatry, rage, lust, greed and lies are just as strong now, and just as wrong today, as they were back then. Maybe worse.
These stories tell us the most basic things about ourselves. And God is still trying to help us to be free.